By Steve Gunn
WHITEHALL – The Whitehall football team’s offense still has some wrinkles to work out.
The Vikings sometimes shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers and missed opportunities, just when they have opponents on the ropes.
But when they start clicking, the points can come fast. Whitehall demonstrated that on Friday against North Muskegon in a key West Michigan Conference matchup on its home field.
After sputtering in the first half at times, particularly with two lost fumbles, the Vikings hit the gas in the second half and rolled to an impressive 41-3 victory to keep their record perfect.
Whitehall is now 3-0 overall and in conference play, while North Muskegon fell to 2-1 in both of those categories.
The game was the first real test for both teams. The Vikings and Norse both opened their seasons with easy wins over Hart and Shelby, but neither of those teams are contenders for the conference crown.
On Friday they both faced a strong challenge for the first time, and Whitehall emerged as a team that clearly can compete with league powers Montague and Oakridge.
But Coach Tony Sigmon isn’t ready to make room for any trophies just yet.
“We have the biggest road trip coming up next week (at Mason County Central), and the next 14 days after that will include Oakridge and Montague,” he said. “Both are excellent programs traditionally, and this year is no exception.”
The first half was frustrating for Whitehall, but it didn’t start out that way.
They kicked off to the Norse to start the game, and eight plays into the first drive, Whitehall’s Marco Moore intercepted a pass and returned it about 40 yards for a touchdown, just under four minutes into the contest.
North Muskegon had a short punt on its second possession that gave the Vikings the ball on the Norse 34.
Three plays later Alex Pruett broke loose for a 22-yard scoring run, and the extra point gave Whitehall a 14-0 lead with 5:11 left in the first quarter.
Then things slowed down for the Vikings.
North Muskegon’s Amarion Dickerson took the kickoff after the second Whitehall score and returned it to the Viking 23, leading to a 30-yard field goal by Gabe Rahrig. Whitehall led 14-3 after one quarter.
The Vikings lost a fumble on their next possession on their own 39. Later in the quarter, Whitehall lost another fumble at their own 21-yard line.
The Vikings ended the half with an incredible possession that started at their own 21-yard line with only 40 seconds left – but it resulted in zero points.
It started with a 20-yard run by Nate Bolley, then quarterback Andrew Durbin completed three straight passes of 11, 25 and 18 yards to put the ball at the North Muskegon 1-yard line with just three seconds remaining on the clock.
Durbin ran the ball into the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown, but a flag was thrown, Whitehall was called for holding, and the half expired with the Vikings still leading 14-3.
The crowd did not like the call, and neither did the Whitehall coaching staff at first, until they looked at the video.
“We were really frustrated,” Sigmon said. “We thought that was going to be a huge momentum thing for us, and we thought it was a bogus call. But the beauty of technology is that we were able to watch the play, and you know what? They got the call right.”
The good news for Whitehall was that the defense held strong. The Norse had lots of opportunities in the second quarter, and the Vikings turned them away each time.
They drove to the Whitehall 21 before turning the ball over on downs. They drove to the Whitehall 25 before a pass was picked off near the goal line by the Vikings’ Red Watson. They drove to the Whitehall 21 before a missed field goal ended the threat.
The Viking D was most impressive against the run, holding the Norse to negative 38 yards in the game. North Muskegon’s leading rusher, Colling Schotts, finished with three just yards.
“You really can’t ask much more from our defense right now,” said Sigmon, whose team has only allowed three points in three games. “They have played very, very well. We are playing fundamentally sound, mistake-free football on the defensive side.”
Whitehall pulled away in the third quarter, with a 4-yard TD run by Pruett and a 20-yard touchdown burst by Kris Dowdell.
In the fourth quarter, Durbin hit Brody Fogus with a 19-yard scoring pass, then Bolley finished the scoring with a 4-yard run.
Dowdell finished with 109 yards on eight carries for Whitehall. Pruett finished with 48 yards and Bolley had 42. Mario Moore caught two passes for 43 yards.
Durbin completed 7 of 11 passes for 103 yards.
Connor Young led the Viking defense with seven tackles, including six solo stops, while Jake Haynes and Mas Brown had five and four tackles, respectively.
Norse quarterback Brennan Panucci completed 14 of 26 passes for 73 yards. He also led the defense with 3.5 tackles.
“We shot ourselves in the foot with some penalties and mental mistakes,” said North Muskegon Coach Larry Witham, whose team was called for 10 penalties for 65 yards. “We have a lot of things to polish up between now and Friday when we play Oakridge.”